Long, "Honest Abe"
Jaffa’s recent attack on Joe Sobran distresses me most in its
unfortunate and misguided understanding of political theory, and
the shambles it makes of the relationship of power, truth, and politics.
Jaffa, an eminent theorist and teacher, was kind to me during my
grad student days 30 years ago. He is the perfect host, friendly
and hospitable. Thus my surprise that he repeatedly employs personal
attacks to derail Sobran’s inquiry into Lincoln. Indeed, Jaffa attempts
to sully Sobran’s argument by throwing him in with various undesirables
who have also attacked Lincoln; but this is to tar Sobran, not to
references include, "White Citizens Councils in the 1950s,"
"Sobran’s Confederate friends, who saw no reason at all to
abolish slavery," and (my favorite) this gem: "This is
the kind of wild and mindless assertion that those of us in this
business associate with unreconstructed Confederates, and old line
politicians of the Jim Crow South." (If the reader is curious
about just who "those of us in this business" are,
please see the discussion below on method.)
seems bent on branding Joe Sobran as a "disingenuous"
racist, a lover of slavery, and a fan of Jim Crow quite a mouthful.
"Jim Crow" routine is pure drivel. Why is it here? (Note
to Professor Jaffa: Please don’t paint me with a white sheet; before
you and I were born, my father, a young history and law professor
at Notre Dame, was under scathing, relentless attack from the Ku
Klux Klan, which is not only racist, as everybody knows, but virulently
anti-Catholic, which few find worth mentioning).
anti-Sobran ad hominem, while unlovely, is actually a necessity:
If Jaffa can admit that a person could oppose slavery but also support
secession, then his theoretical argument falls. So he must prove
that Joe Sobran loves slavery as well as secession. It is, frankly,
quite unlike Mr. Jaffa to build such an important case on so thin
balance of Professor Jaffa’s response reveals much more about Jaffa,
and Jaffa’s Lincoln, than it does about Sobran. As we will see,
his explanation amounts to this: Lincoln really didn’t believe all
those things Sobran quotes. He was speaking to very backward, prejudiced
people 150 years ago. If he had told them the truth, he would never
have gotten elected. So he lied.
could this first-rate scholar, whose lifelong, professional view
of Lincoln borders on canonization, possibly consider it fruitful
to portray his idol as a power-hungry liar in order to vindicate
him in a sideline squabble between Jack Kemp and Joe Sobran?
as mysterious as his conclusion is his method the "close
reading of the text," so beloved by many students of Leo Strauss
(generally called "Straussians"). I have fruitfully employed
textual analysis many a time. But method is not theory, it is not
the end, the ground of being, the ultimate object of the contemplative
activiy, theorein; it is only a method. And it can be used
fact, Jaffa’s complains that even Sobran uses it, to his advantage,
in questioning Lincoln’s views on race. So Jaffa insists on raising
it to another level: textual analysis must be combined with "historical
imagination." Yes, prodigious analysis of the text can prove,
to those who are willing to look beyond the plain and simple meaning
of the words, that the message that Lincoln was really trying to
send us is diametrically opposed to the plain language he used.
higher meaning emerges as he impatiently recounts his earlier writings:
"I explained that Douglas’s strategy was to identify Lincoln
with abolitionists, the most radical, and radically unpopular, of
those in the antislavery coalition. Lincoln’s disavowal of abolitionism
was absolutely necessary to his political survival in the climate
of opinion of Illinois voters in the 1850’s. To have failed to make
such disavowals would simply have disqualified him as a political
leader of the antislavery cause. Sobran knows this, and his present
use of these [Lincoln’s racist] quotations is simply disingenuous.
It was a white public North no less than South that was overwhelmingly
prejudiced against black people, that he had to persuade."
goes on to accuse Sobran: "To understand this however requires
some historical imagination putting oneself in the place of someone
in an earlier age something Sobran seems unable to do."
would have us believe that Lincoln, in order to be elected, told
the unwashed what they wanted to hear, although he didn’t believe
it; that he had to lie, not once, but throughout his political life,
or jeopardize his "political survival." Jim Crow Sobran,
of course, lacks the historical imagination to realize this was
Schiller put it bluntly in his famous (to students of the subject)
inaugural speech as the rector of the University of Jena in 1789:
if research does not give you all the facts you need to give history
the spirit and movement that the times demand, fill in the blanks.
other words, make it up. (Hegel immediately took him up on it).
imagination can backfire sometimes. Notice what transpires next:
Sobran is demanding that we look at Lincoln through the eyes of
his own time, in his own words, and finds him a believer in Negro
inferiority. In an imaginative attempt to rescue Lincoln from that
damning verdict, Jaffa actually makes of him something much more
damnable, a lying monster who would say anything – skillfully maneuvering
between the abolitionists and "Sobran’s confederate friends"
to get elected.
have, more recently, heard words from another president that ring
hollow, but familiar, in the present instance: "I had to preserve
my political viability."
the reader finds himself shifting from wondering if Lincoln can
really be as great as Jaffa says he is, to how he could possibly
been as foul as Jaffa here describes him.
Jaffa’s passion for Lincoln distorts him. Maybe Lincoln isn’t all
that bad, after all. Jaffa has some very modern, very ideological
views concerning equality and majority rule. Perhaps he projects
those views on Lincoln. After all, it is Jaffa who asks that we
attribute to Lincoln the calculating, power-seeking mentality that
is willing to lie. But are these Lincoln’s views, or Jaffa’s?
further point: let’s remember that the people Lincoln couldn’t tell
the truth to were his supporters. However prejudiced and
backward they might be, these aren’t those scurrilous, slave-whupping
Confederate pals of Sobran’s. Jaffa doesn’t even discuss how Lincoln
might deal with the truth in dealing with them.
tries to get his Lincoln off the hook with this lame assertion:
"I believe I have proved that there is no reason to think that
Lincoln shared the prejudices of those he would persuade."
has contempt for the yokels, but Lincoln needed their votes. As
an even lamer excuse, Jaffa throws another canard at Lincoln’s benighted
supporters, just to make sure Sobran and his pals are vanquished:
"But what if the governed [as in, "consent of the governed"]
only imperfectly recognize the equal rights which are the title
deeds to their own authority?
people – those indispensable governed whose consent constitutes
the majority rule that Jaffa praises to the skies – are pre-modern,
non-ideological, even religious, boobs in a word, dumb. They
don’t understand even the basics of their own freedoms, the miscreants.
Lincoln and Jaffa – do.
Jaffa coolly delivers the answer to his own question: If they’re
dumb, you lie.
great – the truly great – must lie to the people, to get
the consent of the majority, so they can be governed by their natural
this what Aristotle called "natural slavery"?
this is Jaffa’s conclusion about political philosophy! What an impoverished
view of the search for truth – that those who find it must immediately
hide it and lie about it!
criticism aside, this is all the legitimacy that Jaffa’s Lincoln
needed – one man, one vote, once – to move forward to "a more
perfect union," breaking all impediments of common law, statute,
the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Once he had "consent"
(however uninformed), and his own notion of perfection (which the
masses could not understand, of course), informed by historical
imagination, Lincoln had his mandate.
goes Jaffa’s view of the relationship of truth to politics. Namely,
there isn’t any. Here the Straussian temptation emerges full-force:
close reading of the text, a task of which only the illuminated
few are capable, reveals one level of Lincoln’s rhetoric for the
masses ("I'm with you, I’m one of you"), another, often referred
to by the Straussians as "secret writing," visible only to "those
of us in this business," the elite coterie to whom Jaffa deigns
to introduce to the rest of us.
much for "Honest Abe."
the early pages of Plato’s Republic, Socrates confronts a sophist
by the name of Thrasymachus, who advocates power and convention,
rather than truth, as the only basis of political order. Jaffa’s
expertise on the ancients far exceeds my own. Yet it appears that
he and his Lincoln have sided with Thrasymachus, and power, against
Socrates, and truth.
of course, Jaffa’s notion of truth is one that can be understood
by only a few great men in each generation (Lincoln, Wilson, FDR,
LBJ, Jaffa), and that everyone else must be lied to – a modernist
version of Plato’s "noble lie."
raises all sorts of other fascinating "what if’s": If
only Socrates had been willing to lie, to escape the hemlock … if
only Christ had been willing to wink, to give Judas the high sign,
to play chess with Satan instead of commanding him, "begone!"
Pilate was right. "What is truth?"
apparent nature of truth here, malleable and ultimately expendable,
is the result of the loss of metaphysics in political theory. Aristotle
inquires into the ground of being, on which he builds his philosophical
anthropology. The Declaration begins by invoking the Creator and
the laws of nature and nature’s God, on the basis of which it asserts
the rights that God gave man – all men, even the backward yokels
age has trumpeted the denial of metaphysics, and has suffered accordingly.
Blind to the relationship of politics to truth, we have no theoretical
ammunition against the lust for power. It prospers all around us,
often widely applauded by "moralists" who constantly remind
us of our "greed" – which is, in fact, a vice of a much
lower order, metaphysically speaking.
in the fallen angels and in fallen man, the lust for power is stronger
than any other passion. Dealing with it realistically prompts the
concern of the Founders for limits on power at every level of politics.
But all of this evaporates in Jaffa’s Lincoln. There we confront
a figure – a statesman! – who is bound and determined to get elected,
and willing – required to lie, repeatedly, to achieve his political
goal. It scarcely exonerates Lincoln that he deemed the goal supremely
important, or that he thought the truth was too "high"
or "advanced" for the scurrilous miscreants of his time.
Jaffa’s analysis, it was Lincoln’s mission to carry his work of
greater perfection forward to "a new birth of freedom"
in spite of the backward prejudices of the people. Should they resist,
no doubt, the masses to whom he lied because they could not understand
would be "forced to be free" – to use Rousseau’s wonderful,
totalitarian turn of the phrase. After all, he was doing it for
their sake, for the people. For humanity.
of this, of course, perfectly describes the ideological tyrant.
wait – there’s more. To consecrate his enterprise, Jaffa turns to
another favorite modernist move, the use of religious symbol to
confer authenticity. In his argument that the Constitution was an
unbreakable contract, he compares it to the Sacrament of marriage:
marriage is a voluntary agreement, or contract, between a man and
a woman. Prior to the marriage, each is free to contract alliances
with other parties. After marriage, they are entitled to no such
freedom. To say that a partner in marriage can end the union, and
co-habit with another partner, is in effect to deny that there ever
was a marriage at all."
is religious revelation indeed. For, if Lincoln’s Union (Jaffa’s
caps) is Sacramental (mine), however secular its nature, Jaffa’s assertion
that it represents the promise of perfection naturally carries much
more weight. After all, it is blessed and prescribed by God. Such
a sanctified, unprecedented, and forward-moving consubstantiation
of the state with the divine purpose would naturally prevail over
the primitive designs of a backward people who didn’t even properly
understand why they were free in the first place.
with Thrasymachus and Hobbes, Jaffa is willing to accept a conventionally-invoked
deity for purposes of persuasion of the hoi polloi, but he
will reject the existence of the same deity for the purposes of
constructing a working political theory.
this explains an earlier mystery: if the Truth of the Union is Sacramental,
it can be understood only by the baptized, the few philosophically
advanced people who can discuss it with one another in any given
generation (remember them?). But wait – won’t most of them have
arrived at positions of power because they know when to hide the
truth, and when to show it, better than their political opposition
(as Lincoln did)? Doesn’t that mean, then, that the truly virtuous
nation will be the one in which these philosophers rule – even though,
of course, they had to lie to get there? Even though hundreds of
thousands (in the nineteenth century) or millions (in the twentieth)
had to die as a result of this national "advance to virtue"?
has long been tempted by a strain of elitist "inquiry"
that sports a belief in "secrets" of history that can
be boldly divined by the brilliant, close reading of the text, instead
of in humbling mysteries that lie beyond the reach of human reason.
brilliant, this represents the demise of political philosophy. There
is no greater good than truth. However appealing the "Noble
Lie" might be to contemporary pretenders to the throne of the
philosopher king, it always invites disaster.
once said that, while truth will make you free, falsehood always
brings violence in its wake. One has only to observe the consequences
of the lies, from Lincoln to LBJ and Nixon, to draw one’s own conclusions.
there is one more gnawing question: if Lincoln couldn’t tell the
truth to the unwashed of his generation, can Jaffa tell the truth
to us backward Sobranites?
will we have to wait a hundred years for some genius to discern,
between the lines, what Jaffa was too smart to tell us?
Manion, PhD, [send him mail]
is a small businessman in Virginia, An adjunct lecturer at Christendom
College, he has taught ethics at Boston University and is a founding
member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
© 2001 LewRockwell.com